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How bowel health influences our state of mind

Everyone feels under the weather from time to time. Especially while working through a busy schedule, mental health needs often go unnoticed. However, taking care of your mental health and being mindful is extremely important for your overall health. Remember, your mental health is more important than that meeting, this exam, that dinner or that job interview. Focussing on mental health doesn’t just benefit your peace of mind - research says, it’s actually linked to your physical health as well.

Have you ever been so excited you felt butterflies in your stomach?  New research says you’re likely getting signals from your second brain. Yes, you read that correctly. Now don’t get too excited, it won’t help you do your taxes or write a book. This “brain” in your gut is actually called the enteric nervous system (ENS) and it’s main role is what we would think it would be: controlling digestion. Nevertheless, according to researchers at the John Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology the ENS communicates back and forth with our brain, thereby influencing our mental health profoundly.

Our gut triggers an emotional response

For decades researchers and doctors have been saying how anxiety and depression contribute to chronic bowel diseases and/or functional bowel problems. According to new research, this relationship might be a two-way street. Irritation in the ENS may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger significant mood changes. This might explain why a higher-than-normal percentage with bowel problems develop mental health problems. For example, researchers at the KU Leuven in Belgium found that certain gut bacteria is significantly linked to depression. Psychological interventions such as specific therapy could therefore help with healing both of our “brains”.

For lots of people struggling with chronic or functional bowel problems prescribed medication doesn’t provide the needed relief. Latest research shows that a holistic approach to treating people with bowel diseases might actually be a solution. For instance, a case study published in the Global Advances in Health and Medicine journal could show that a young man struggling with Crohn’s disease symptoms significantly profited from a holistic mind-body program. Moreover, a study by the Massachusetts General Hospital showed that meditation altered more than 1,000 genes, including suppressing certain proteins that are responsible for inflaming the GI tract. The sample of 48 patients suffering IBS or IBD actually physically benefited from regular meditation. Researchers at Rush University in Chicago found that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which is a type of meditation, significantly decreases perceived stress in people with ulcerative colitis. The researchers believe that MBSR could potentially help patients deal with flare-ups and might even help decrease rates of flare-ups.

In summary, your state of mind seems to be critical for your gut health. A holistic approach could actually help your fight against IBD, IBS or other stomach sensitivities. While diet is important, your mental health is arguably just as important in dealing with bowel difficulties.

What can we do?

Personally, I’ve never had any contact with meditation. However, with all this research toward a brain-gut connection piling up, I was determined to give it a go. So, this year I have started to include 10 minutes of meditation every morning before the kids wake up for school. I’m still working on keeping it up on the weekends as well but nevertheless, I have noticed a difference in my mental health. It keeps me calm and focused throughout the day. I’ve also experienced enlightening moments of realization during the meditation. I’ll be real with you, though. In the beginning you will feel a little awkward doing it, but with time you’ll enjoy it more and more and you’ll start to notice changes in your state of mind. To get you started, here are 5 tips on developing a habit for meditation:

  1. Make sure to find a quiet and warm place, so you can fully embrace your mind and aren’t distracted by anything.
  2. If you, like me, don’t have a clue about meditation, you could start by following guided meditations via YouTube, Insight Timer or HeadSpace.
  3. Start with 3 minutes of meditation a day. You don’t have to overdo it immediately. It will most likely throw you off the whole idea. You can increase your meditation time when you feel more comfortable.
  4. Each day, write a quick journal entry on how you’re feeling today so you can trace back your progress.
  5. To help keep it up, set a reminder on your phone or use organizing apps like Done or Todoist. That will help you track your streaks.

It’s important to also teach our kids to be mindful and aware of their mental needs. According to Christy Jones, a holistic health coach, more and more children lack confidence, suffer from stress and feel anxious. As parents, we obviously want to do anything to help our children live their best life and feel empowered at all times. We should be training our kids on how to take care of their mental health and make it a priority. A program by Christy Jones called “Empowered To Be Me” is specifically designed for children and teenager and teaches powerful life skills on how to be mindful and how to face any obstacles they might be up against.

Mental health is just as important as physical health. Talking about and finding ways to face your mental struggles does not make you an attention seeker or anything else people might have told you to shut you up. Remember that. Our peace of mind is critical for our quality of life, so let’s focus on getting it right this year!